Reporter- News Analyst
After weeks of campaigning individually, the four candidates for Fernandina Beach City Commission sat down together in a 90-minute candidates’ forum the evening of October 25, 2012, in Fernandina Beach City Hall chambers. Larry D. Myers, former Fernandina Beach city manager and aide to state representative Aaron Bean, moderated the forum, which was jointly sponsored by the Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach-Yulee Chamber of Commerce and the Fernandina Observer.
Candidates were allowed 2 minutes each for opening and closing statements. Myers posed to the candidates 8 questions that had been developed by the two sponsors and two questions gleaned from the audience. Citizen-activist Len Kreger served as timekeeper, reminding candidates when they were about to maximize their 2 minutes allowed for responses.
Despite sometimes harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail, all four candidates – Ed Boner and Tim Poynter contesting Group 4; and John Campbell Elwell and Pat Kelly Gass contesting Group 5 – treated each other respectfully as they listened to their positions and responses.
In a nutshell, the candidates’ answers are summarized below; for complete answers, as well as the candidates’ opening and closing statements, please watch the video streaming on the city’s website or a rebroadcast of the forum on Comcast Channel 264.
The candidates shared some positions, while contrasting sharply on others. In discussing ways to lower the costs of government, Poynter suggested a police/fire rescue overlay, which would more evenly distribute costs for such services separately from ad valorem taxes. Gass and Boner appeared to take this idea one step further by suggesting the creation of a special district, similar to the Mosquito Control District. Gass said that she would like to look for savings by exploring closer cooperation with Nassau County and the Constitutional Officers in purchasing insurance and other possible joint activities. Boner suggested a 2-tiered pension plan and opined that the city needed to more closely examine needs vs. wants, citing his opposition to recent expansion of the Atlantic Avenue Recreation Center paid for by impact fees, and the $64,000 cost to replacement fencing at the softball field. He suggested looking at “value added spending” for charitable groups and baseball. Citing his business experience, Elwell said that he would hold departments accountable, measuring and monitoring their expenses constantly.
Combining City and County Services
Elwell expressed a desire to work closely with Nassau County to reduce overhead by combining IT departments and working on island wide police and fire rescue services. He suggested that using community focus groups, the city and county could together identify areas where working together would be feasible. Gass said that the city should talk with the county about everything. She highlighted the jetties as the culprit responsible for beach erosion and suggested that they be looked at as part of the solution to beach erosion problems. Boner suggested that some services might be combined – like 911 service – but others should not. He said that the county should do its share to help with beach renourishment. Poynter said that some of the ideas suggested have already been pursued with the county, like island-wide fire protection. To date, the county has not expressed interest. For many years the city discussed with the Sheriff taking over island wide protection. He is hopeful that after the election of Bill Leeper as Sheriff, the county might be more receptive to the idea. He added, “We are Fernandina Beach, and we are a city. We offer a lot of things the county does not offer. I’m proud of that. Let’s not lose sight of that.”
Additional City Revenues
Gass suggested that the city needed to get rid of property that it owns but is not using. She suggested that the city might want to run a lottery to sell a nice piece of property. Boner replied that revenue generating ideas are a tax on locals, because every proposed fee is a tax. He looks for smarter ways to do business to avoid need for fees. Poynter said that local government gets revenues three ways: ad valorem taxes, sales taxes and fees. Since it takes money to run the city, he said that getting rid of fees would drive ad valorem taxes through the roof. Elwell said that the city has a liquidity problem, and that it should examine selling or leasing property it owns but is not using. He also endorsed public-private partnerships, encouraged tourism and called for a review of all fee structures.
In response to a question regarding the city’s use of management companies to run various enterprise activities, Poynter, Elwell and Gass seemed united in the view that government should not be running businesses, while Boner said that he was not opposed unless the city would not make a profit at the end of the day.
Two candidates – Boner and Elwell –were adamant in declaring that voter referendums should be required for any major project which requires city borrowing, while Gass said that she would pay close attention to the people before making such a decision, opting for a referendum if a project appeared to be particularly contentious. Poynter disagreed, citing the millions of dollars of indebtedness that the city has taken on over the years because in the opinion of the commissioners at the time, it was the right thing to do. He supported decisions of commissioners, elected to represent the people, claiming that if every decision on a project had to go to the voters, the city would get nothing done.
Private Sector Job Creation
All candidates professed to be pro business, while differing on how best to demonstrate this. In response to a question concerning private sector job creation, Elwell and Gass strongly supported suspending impact fees as a way to attract new businesses and expand existing ones, while Boner cited concern over the unequal costs to do business in the county and the city. He said that the city must find ways to add value instead of fees and take care of the whole city. Poynter suggested that incentivizing businesses would be a better approach than eliminating fees that are necessary to run the city.
Gass said that she wanted to shine up the airport and bring in more development. She would like to see a hotel/motel and a restaurant added. Boner warned that the city needed to be careful about limiting options and that if there will be multiple FBOs, they should receive equal treatment. Poynter said that in talking with many citizens about the airport, he concluded that people want it to be safe, small and peaceful. He is interested in bringing in aeronautical jobs, but shares the community vision that the airport itself not be expanded. Elwell believed that the airport should be shared with both the county and the port. He suggested that the City Commission review the current status and look into a more equitable way of sharing the facility and the costs.
Major Differences Between the Candidates
Myers asked the candidates to identify areas of disagreement with their specific opponent. Boner cited Poynter’s support for Forward Fernandina projects and lack of support for a public referendum on that issue. Poynter reaffirmed his support for all the projects funded under Forward Fernandina and agreed that while it is an issue that divides them, he considers it one of his best decisions. Boner said he saw no reason to opening Alachua Street. Poynter asked rhetorically, when is the best time to move on projects that have been discussed 40 years. He added that the most valuable riverfront property the city owns is now used as a parking lot. Elwell cited his corporate experience with Rayonier in fixing problem areas to improve profitability. He said that the city needs business leadership more than ever, which he can bring to the commission. Gass acknowledged that she did not have a business background like Elwell’s, but she has lived here 46 years, served 19 years on the Board of Adjustments and has 2-3 years experience running a local restaurant that is completely debt free.
Job of a Commissioner
Poynter said that the job of commissioners is to do their homework and be able to make the tough decisions at the end of the day. Along with this is being able to explain to the people why they voted the way they did. Elwell said that the commission is a team, and commissioners must leave their egos at the door. Even though the city manager is the city’s chief operating officer, commissioners and the city manager need to dialog to work together in the best interests of the city. Gass said that a commissioner must listen to a wide variety of input, do research and make the hard decisions that are in the best interests of everyone. Boner agreed with Gass.
Federal and State Grants
Elwell said that it would be foolish not to entertain the possibility of grants as a full or partial funding source for city projects. Gass prefers private grants to public grants, claiming that she is wary of strings attached to some grants. Boner agreed that the city needed to be careful of strings attached to grants adding, “Grants are tax money, too.” Poynter stated, “Thank God for grants. Otherwise this city wouldn’t run.” He cited the millions of dollars the city has received from the federal government for beach renourishment and airport improvements. He said that through grants, the federal and state governments are “giving us our money back.”
While the event brought out many people, it did not fill the meeting chamber. The candidates circulated before and after the forum to answer specific questions of audience members. Most forums tend to bring out the supporters of the individual candidates, and this one seemed to fit that model. Audience members were polite and attentive and gave all the candidates and the moderator a round of applause at the event’s conclusion.
Editor’s Note: For more information on candidates visit A.I.F.B.Y Chamber of Commerce Business Blog, and visit www.fernandinaobserver.com for candidate profiles by Don Parker, and a series of 7 questions posed by the Fernandina Observer. To view all questions, and all profiles simply hit “Older posts” located at the bottom.
October 28, 2012 2:27 p.m.